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Originally published in Runner’s World Magazine April 2001

Hoop Dreams

A had my shot. There was one brief moment where my destiny was in my hands. Watching the ball sail off the tip of my fingers I had no idea what that one shot would mean.

Like most 12 year old boys, I wanted to be an athlete, so I tried out for the Rhodes Elementary School basketball team. Being a 7th grader, being nearly the youngest in my class, and being short didn't deter me. I'd seen the uniforms, I'd been to the games, and I'd heard the cheerleaders calling out the player's names. I wanted to be on the team.

Practices in those days were mostly about running up and down the court, doing lay-up drills, and shooting free-throws. It may help put this in perspective for you to know that I shot free-throws using the two-handed, between-the-legs technique since I wasn't strong enough to actually shoot the ball overhand. After each practice, I'd stay until I had made 20 baskets from the free-throw line. The coach was impressed with my tenacity, if not my talent.

Then came the moment. We were behind by one point, to our cross-city rivals, there we just a few seconds left when the coach called a time out. "Bingham", he yelled. "Get ready to go in." This was a major shock since I had never actually played IN a game at that point. I took off my warm-up jacket, and made my way to the coach's side. The next words out of his mouth stunned everyone.

"Let Bingham take the shot. No one will expect it. No one will be guarding him. Toss him the inbound pass, get out of his way, and get under the basket." Then he turned to me and said: "Just get close enough to shoot a free-throw."

My heart was pounding. My palms were sweating. As I moved out onto the floor it felt as if every eye was on me. The coach was right. Not one opposing player came within 50 feet of me. The inbound pass came to me, I had the ball in my hands, the coach was yelling, the team was yelling, the cheerleaders were yelling. And then it happened.

I moved towards the basket. I even managed to dribble the ball once or twice. But instead of taking the under-hand shot that I had practice, I drew the ball up and shot it overhand. As I pushed to ball off I could feel the room go into a state of suspended animation. The world stopped.

So did the ball. Well, it didn't acually stop. It just sort of fell harmlessly to the ground and into the hands of an all to eager opponent who raced passed me and scored an easy basket. We lost the game by three points.

Adolescent boys are not the most forgiving people on earth. Neither was the coach. In fact, even the cheerleaders took turns berating me. I'm not sure what was the most humilitaing, the taunts by the oponents or by my teammates, but the result was that I never put on the uniform again. I never put on ANY uniform again. And never played on another school sports team.

It was 32 years later that I tried to become an athlete again. 32 years before I worked up the courage to put on a pair of running shoes and pin a race number to my chest. 32 years before I had the nerve to admit that more than anything in my life I had always wanted to be an athlete.

So often we are defined by moments in our lives over which we have little or no control. Too often, that one instant becomes the turning point. Those moments are, after all, just that. Moments. And yet there are so many of us, who, as adult-onset athletes, must first overcome our pasts before we can dream of a future.

I don't know what happened to anyone that was on that team with me. I don't know what happened to the coach. I don't know if any of them have run 24 marathons, or hundreds of 5 and 10K's. But I have. Every starting line is my chance to erase that memory. Every finish line is a chance to redeem myself. And I savor every victory I have over myself.

There are times when I wonder how my life would have changed if I had made the shot. I wonder what it would have been like to have been a hero, if only that once. I wonder if there are others, like me, who turned to running because then their failures wouldn't affect the entire team.

And I wonder if I might have found out all those years ago what I've only recently discovered, that what really matters most is being in the game.

Waddle on, friends.

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